Success on the mat is not new to grapplers in Hernando County. With two storied high school programs in Springstead and Hernando residing here, there have been many state champions and placers to make their way through this area.
This makes Matt Landgraff's accomplishment all the more impressive. Matt, 12, became the first middle school All-American in local history when he placed fifth in the 85-pound weight class at the NHSCA Nationals this month in Virginia Beach, Va.
"It's a real honor to be the first one ever to accomplish something," Matt said. "It felt real good to hold the medal in my hands."
A member of the Spring Hill Wrestling Club, staffed by Springstead coach Eric Swensen and other volunteers, Matt followed in his older brother's footsteps when it came to wrestling. Shawn Landgraff is a sophomore and was named to the Times' All-North Suncoast First Team this past season. Younger brother, Chase, a third-grader at Chocochatti Elementary, also competes with Spring Hill Wrestling.
Despite Shawn's success at the prep level, Matt has already surpassed him and every other competitor to come through the county when he became the first middle school All-American. That achievement will always be in his back pocket, but Matt does not seem satisfied by any means.
"Watching my (older) brother makes me want to be better than him later on," Matt said. "I see him make mistakes in his matches, and it reminds me not to make the same mistakes when I wrestle."
Matt watched as former Spring Hill Wrestling teammates, such as Cody Ross and Sean Redman, contributed to the Springstead program as freshmen. Cody was a state finalist this past season and earned All-American honors beside Matt and Nick Soto at Virginia Beach.
Matt and his fellow classmates, Jordan Rivera, Mike McDonald and Josh Herrera, are in line to carry the torch for the Springstead program when they become freshmen in 2012. Swensen and the other coaches already joke about how good that team can be that season.
"During the winter (when high school wrestling is in season), Matt, Josh, Jordan and Mike are the big boys in the wrestling room," Swensen said. "The important thing for these kids is to erase the word burnout and keep them focused."
Josh and Matt are partners in the wrestling room and have made each other better over the past couple years. Josh has won four state titles and multiple other major tournament crowns. Matt points out how valuable having someone such as Josh on his side can be for his own success.
"Josh really knows how to capitalize on your mistakes," Matt said. "It makes me better out on the mat because I have to be careful not to slip up."
Matt's focus doesn't include just wrestling, though. Like any other 12-year-old boy, his engine is constantly running. This year for West Hernando Middle, he played football, basketball and ran track, all while maintaining a 3.8 GPA.
Matt's father, Shane Landgraff, was also a high school wrestler, which partly inspired his sons to try it. Shane, a deputy for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the resource officer at West Hernando, takes a great deal of pride helping out in the wrestling room with other coaches to watch his sons' progress.
"(Matt) has taken a lot of lumps here competing against some really tough kids," Shane said. "That's why it makes me so proud to see him accomplish something so great."
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